The opening of Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, the sequel to 1997’s International Man of Mystery, is a rambunctious celebration of film history, the 1960s, and visual comedy. Moving smoothly from one ode to another, it gestures rapidly toward its influences: Star Wars, James Bond, Barbarella, The Party, becoming a seamless blend of cinematic appreciation. But the swingin’ sequel wasn’t always in the cards.
In 1997, when the first Austin Powers film came out, it did not have a successful opening weekend. But thanks to VHS and DVD rentals – as well as a plethora of infectious catchphrases – it became a cult success. Soon a sequel was greenlit and Austin Powers creator Mike Myers and screenwriter Michael McCullers crafted a new story for the superspy: The Spy Who Shagged Me, a saucy play on the James Bond title The Spy Who Loved Me. It was set to release in the spring of 1999. Unfortunately, so was the reboot of the Star Wars franchise.
This proved a ripe moment for parody, leading to a hilarious teaser trailer that encouraged audiences to see both the new Star Wars and the new Austin Powers. This nod to Star Wars was carried over into the film proper, with the opening images featuring a starfield and yellow typography. Simultaneously, the first notes of a Goldfinger-esque ballad can be heard, performed and written by rock band They Might Be Giants with Robin Goldwasser on vocals, her soulful timbre reminiscent of Bond theme singer Shirley Bassey. In this way, the film begins on a fantastic one-two punch, riffing on the longest running and the top-grossing film franchises in history, Bond and Star Wars, respectively.
Next, after scenes in which Dr. Evil returns and Vanessa, Austin’s love, is revealed to be a fembot, Austin celebrates his newly regained bachelor status by stripping down to his kibbles n’ bits and cavorting majestically through an elegant hotel. The titles, designed by Robert Dawson, appear atop and alongside Austin’s bits in bright pops of a typeface now known as Doobie.
Austin shakes and shimmies through the lobby and past crowds in formalwear, the credits acting as perfectly placed censors, echoing the typography of 1960s film Barbarella. When Austin enters a dining room, a man holds a nutcracker and a walnut just so, a “Casting By” credit erupting from it. In a moment, a hand is grasping a large banana, the cyan credit for “Music Supervisor” bursting nearby, and two rabbis are slicing a large brisket as Austin winces in the background. The final credit-as-censor is placed atop his bikini area as he jumps into a pool and the action moves squarely into the realm of Busby Berkeley musical. Next, Austin wears a neon pink bathing suit as part of a troupe of synchronized swimmers, throwing his arms about in tight formations, his curly chest hair and thick-rimmed glasses setting him apart. As Quincy Jones’ “Soul Bossa Nova” nears its end, Austin emerges from the water for the big finish. He is miraculously dry, having achieved another larger-than-life entrance for a character that deserves nothing less.
A discussion with Austin Powers Director JAY ROACH and Choreographer MARGUERITE POMERHN DERRICKS.
How soon after Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery did you know you were going to do the sequel, The Spy Who Shagged Me?
Jay: Pretty much right away, as soon as it looked like it was going to have some kind of a following. It was early, early days, ‘cause Warner Bros. was one of the first studios to do DVD and both the DVD and the VHS kind of took off! They said, “Okay, now it’s a cult hit. Will you make another one?” So we said yes. But it wasn’t until we did the teaser trailer that we thought it might have a good outing.
Mike [Myers] and [Michael] McCullers and the marketing people at New Line came up with this idea – ’cause we were opening at the same time as the reboot of Star Wars – to do this trailer where Mike would pretend to be Darth Vader. The tagline was, “If you see one movie this summer, see Star Wars. But if you see two movies, see Austin Powers.” It just took off!
Jay: That trailer. I remember seeing it – we were still in the middle of cutting the movie – and I was like, “Oh my God, we have a lot to live up to now.” That became very popular.
Marguerite: We went from being a little indie film that had no money to now, there was money. I was obviously mad excited to get back working with the team. And now there was money behind it! It was a whole different situation.
Where did the idea for a sight gag-based opening come from?
Jay: We had done so well on the nudity blocking on the first one, with Mike’s naked bits being just barely covered by a prop at the exact right time, that we thought we could fold in that idea as a musical thing. In the first movie, we actually shot that whole thing with Elizabeth Hurley blocking his bits in one take, but we ended up cutting it up. That’s what triggered that whole thing. We didn’t have to do it as one continuous take. We thought, if we’re free of trying to do it in one take, let’s just come up with the biggest, craziest versions of blocking his parts, like big giant hams covering his butt, or the long take where he’s going down the table and ends with the rabbis doing what looks like a circumcision on the brisket and he yells, “L'chaim!” That stuff just seemed like a way to do a callback and say, this is going to be as funny as the first one but even more choreographed!
Jay: I had studied silent movies and Busby Berkeley big Hollywood musicals, and I tried to squeeze some of that into the first one but we never had the budget to do ‘em very well. So I was pitching elaborate choreography on a grand scale, which led directly to the synchronized swimming thing. That’s straight out of the Busby Berkeley vibe.
Marguerite: The opening sequence, like, the funny part was just keeping Mike’s kibbles n’ bits – the way he called it – from being seen. That was a big part of that choreography: creatively figuring out how not to show his kibbles n’ bits! [laughs]
How did you work the sight gags in with your choreography and the timing and framing of everything?
Marguerite: It all started with us being in a room, standing on the floor, everything on index cards. Everything was always laid out on these index cards. It was always planned out so when we got to the set there were no questions as to what it was going to be. It was just adjusting things for the camera. We were never creating on the set. He was very meticulous in planning things out and now it was the second film so we all already had one together. We knew how to set it up and to make it comfortable for Mike. There’s a lot of pressure when you’re on a movie. The stakes were higher because there was a much bigger budget. There’s a freedom that comes from being the little indie guy, so now there was a lot more pressure. We had to rehearse with the camera, whereas in the first one we didn’t have to. This one we had to, because it was a lot about the gag of lifting a piece of fruit or whatever it was up to hide his bits.
Was it more about making things flow smoothly from one move to the next?
Marguerite: Absolutely. It’s a lot of staging. More than choreography, it’s staging.
How naked was he while you were shooting?
Marguerite: He wasn’t flashing his kibbles ‘n bits but he was pretty naked! He had something covering him up.
Jay: We had a kind of sock – what we called a sock, or a mirkin [laughs] – sometimes with a G-string thing that held it on, sometimes not! He’s a pretty immodest person [laughs] and you get used to it after a while.
Marguerite: Mike Myers is a comedic genius. [laughs] I remember being with him one time in his dressing room, rehearsing with him, and he was down to his underwear. His wife was there, and he was dancing in his trailer and he looks at me and goes, “Do I look fat?” [laughs] Every day I would just leave work with my cheeks in pain, smiling and laughing. He always made me laugh so hard.
Jay: The day we shot the dinner table one was the day my second son was born. I had choreographed it all. It was a scheduled birth – my wife was having a C-section. We were gonna get a helicopter in case I couldn’t get out of Malibu in time – if there was a traffic jam! – but my wife was so scared of the helicopter, she wouldn’t let me do that. So I had a car waiting outside that I would run and jump into. I think the doctors were willing to wait until 10pm so I could witness the birth of my second child! [laughs] And we kept shooting and shooting and we weren’t getting it! And then finally on take 13 we nailed that thing – everything timed out perfectly, the banana was in the right place, the drinks were lifted, and the rabbi hits the end of the brisket just right – L'chaim! – and I go, “Good, we got it!” But Mike wasn’t sure that we had it. I said, “Mike, I’m sure enough, and now I’m leaving, ‘cause I’m gonna go have a baby! Good luck if you want to shoot some more! It’s all pre-orchestrated, you can shoot as many takes as you want.” [laughs] I left and they shot something like ten or twelve more takes without me! Which I’ve never done on a movie before or after and we still used take 13, so I was right! [laughs]
And then, to pay off the sight gags, you headed into the water. How did you work with the synchronized swimming?
Jay: We had a choreographer.
Jay: That’s right! She was helping with the underwater stuff. Marguerite helped with the above-water hand moves. Becky and a team of – I don’t know if they were professional or just hobbyist synchronized swimmers – but she worked all that out for us and helped us fit it into the vibe.
Marguerite: I had an assistant on set with me – Michelle Elkin. She was my assistant on all three Austin Powers movies. It was Becky’s team of girls but I was there for Mike to help him with his movement on set. I was always there overseeing it, making sure that Mike was comfortable, that Mike looked good.
Jay: And Mike learned it all! Again, it was meant to be a silly form of synchronized swimming from his point of view but he took it seriously. That was a blast.
You can see that he’s really committed to it.
Jay: Oh man, there’s nobody who will work harder. He’s like Buster Keaton. He’s really putting himself all the way out and I think the audience feels how much he’s devoted to it. That last shot of him rising up out of the water was shot in reverse as he was going in the water… He comes out dry.
Jay: And we had this great location out in Malibu, that whole giant rich palatial place. It was all shot in one house to make it look like a hotel.
And the graphics are really fun on that, too! That was a little bit inspired by Spy Hard. I think it was Spy Hard that had done a water title sequence as well – that "Weird Al" Yankovic had helped them create.
For this one, you worked with Robert Dawson, the title designer, right?
Jay: Yes! That’s right. He did a great job. I don’t remember much about the process, but that was a great experience for us just because we hoped the titles could come to life in an animated way. We were definitely inspired by the Pink Panther movies, where the letters themselves have a whole life.
It’s great how the titles are embedded into the scene. Certain dishes in the dinner scene go over top of the titles, and they splurt out of certain areas…
Jay: Yeah, it was meant to be inappropriate, too, sometimes! [laughs] The titles cover his butt and parts from time to time in a creative way….
Jay: It was meant to be a joy of titles, the words themselves seeming to have a life. We hadn’t done that to that extent before. It was the chance from what a little extra money buys you on your budget.
At the end there’s circus performers and mimes and you know, every possible character is thrown into the shot to just make it look like a rave out, almost like The Party, the Peter Sellers movie. You just throw every freakin’ thing into the shot, including tridents and Norse gods…
You’ve got fire-breathers and women holding what looks like cut-out dolphins. And are these mini-Austins?
Jay: Yes, there are some mini-Austins! [laughs] That was fun. That was a blast.
Check out the titles of Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, featuring an interview with Director JAY ROACH and Choreographer MARGUERITE POMERHN DERRICKS.
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